After extremists killed hundreds in Easter suicide bombings, Sri Lanka’s minority Muslim population now has to worry about retaliatory attacks.
By Feizal Samath
It used to be that Sri Lanka’s minority Tamil community bore the brunt of retaliatory attacks from the country’s hard-line majority Sinhalese population.
In response to a violent terrorist campaign waged by Tamil separatists from 1980 to 2009, moderate Tamils were frequently targeted – often violently – by Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese population.
Now the minority group that has to worry about reprisals is Muslims, after extremists killed at least 253 people in suicide bombings on Easter Sunday, April 21.
The terrorist organization Islamic State claimed responsibility for the bombings, which occurred at three churches across Sri Lanka and at three luxury Colombo hotels that were hosting Easter brunch celebrations.
The terrorists’ targets were Christian worshipers and tourists – thus dealing a devastating blow to a country that has seen tourism rise from fewer than 500,000 arrivals in 2009 to 2.2 million in 2018.
Ironically, the attacks occurred on the eve of the 10-year anniversary of the end of the Tamil separatist campaign.
In May 2009, Sri Lankan security forces finally quelled Tamil rebels’ 30-year battle for a separate Tamil homeland. Suicide bombings had been one of the rebels’ hallmark tactics.
The Islamic State is spreading its tentacles.
The country is now back to those troubled days. The government has increased defence spending. Security forces are back on the streets and stationed outside hotels and economic centres. Metal detectors and scanners that were prominent during the Tamil conflict years are again in use.
But this time, the threat has a far more worrying and has an international dimension, according to military analysts. Islamic State is spreading its tentacles across the region, particularly in India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
Mohamed Zahran, who is believed to have died in the blasts, has been identified as the mastermind of the attacks. Zahran was the founder of the fundamentalist National Tawheed Jamaat but broke away from that organization in 2018 to create the Nation of Tawheed Jamaat.
Zahran and his followers preached a doctrine that included hatred of non-Muslims, particularly Christians. The primary objective of this second NTJ was to engage in violence, according to Sri Lankan political journalist D.B.S. Jeyaraj.
The ultraconservative version of Islam that Zahran preached “rejects any religious innovation that came into being after the first three centuries of Islam,” Jeyaraj wrote.
Muslim groups had warned authorities about extremists.
Zahran went around the country enrolling members for his organization and at one time had 600 full members and 4,500 associate members. Some of them were killed in gun battle with security forces last week in a town near Kattankudy during the military’s search of a suspicious house.
Local and foreign media have reported that for the past several years moderate Muslim leaders had been warning Sri Lankan authorities about the existence of Muslim extremism and Islamic State’s links to the Nation of Tawheed Jamaat.
“I gave details to the defence secretary in January 2019 about extremist Mohamed Zahran, leader of the Nation of Tawheed Jamaat, and asked him to arrest this person as he was spreading the Islamic State doctrine in our mosques and amongst Moslem population,” All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) leader Sheik Mufti M.I.M. Rizwe told a gathering of religious groups last week.
The ACJU is an organization of Islamic theologians in Sri Lanka that provides religious and community leadership to the country’s Muslim population. The Sinhalese represent 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s 21 million people, Tamil Hindus represent 13 percent, Muslims 10 percent and Christians seven percent.
India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, had also detected the emergence of Islamic State cells in Sri Lanka based on its activities in South India, military analysts said.
Muslims are now a worried community.
The authorities either failed to take these reports seriously or failed to adequately address the risk they posed.
Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and police chief Pujith Jayasundera were both asked to resign because of security lapses. Fernando has been replaced by retired army commander General Shantha Kottegoda. Jayasundera, who refused to step down, has been sent on compulsory leave by the authorities.
Since the attacks, local security authorities, helped by U.S. and UK intelligence teams, have made scores of arrests across the island.
Muslims are now a worried community, much as moderate Tamils used to be during Tamil extremism. But unlike Tamils, a large percentage of Muslims are easily identifiable – many men on account of their bristling beards and many women on account of their burqas — although on Sri Lankan authorities have banned face coverings in public, preventing Muslim women from wearing the niqab).
Muslim moderates are standing up against fundamentalist groups and demanding action to dismantle their organizations, in part because they are losing followers who practice moderate Islam.
Following the attacks, the government immediately banned both the National Tawheed Jammat and the Nation of Tawheed Jammat and connected groups.
Feizal Samath is a Sri Lankan who covered the war between Tamil Tiger guerrillas and government troops, and the leftist insurgency attempting to overthrow the government, for Reuters. A journalist for nearly four decades, he more recently has covered economic development in Sri Lanka for a newspaper in Colombo. A social activist and guitarist, Samath founded a concert series that has raised millions of rupees for children’s charities.